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Leadership Style, Emotional Intelligence, and Organizational Effectiveness

by Herb Stevenson

Leadership effectiveness is dependent on the specific circumstances and the blend of leader styles used over time. Mis-use, over-use, or under-use of a particular style can lead not only to ineffectiveness, but to a backlash via the organizational climate. As defined by David McClelland and others, climate refers to six leadership factors that influence an organization s environment via the style most often used by the C-level executive(s):

As a result of these factors, six leadership styles were created.[1]

In today's complex environment, it has become clear that using only one or two overused leadership styles tends to minimize and often hamper effectiveness. For example, an extreme of over-use is Chainsaw Al Dunlap from Sunbeam. Generally, he decimated companies with his coercive and commanding approach to cost cutting for short term profit improvement and long term insolvency. As a means to personally profit, he was successful. As a means to increase short term profit and raise immediate stock prices, he was successful. As a leader who truly maximized the total value of an organization, he was a miserable failure.[2]

A Coaching Example

Recently, I worked with a CEO who had been hired to raise the bar for the organization. It had been a mediocre performer for a number of years both in terms of product quality and financial performance. At best, its stock had been boring.

Very quickly, the CEO raised quality standards, and the numbers followed. The organization s profits were rising, losses were stemmed sufficiently to be below peers throughout the recent recession. The board was rewarding the CEO with accolades, bonuses and pure wealth building perks. The board openly indicated that it would pay whatever it took to keep the CEO happy and in place.

Within the organization, the climate was a different story. The CEO combined two preferred leadership styles: Pacesetting and coercive/commanding. As a pacesetter, he had set high standards of performance for himself and expected the same of everyone else. At the extreme of this leadership style, he was often obsessive about doing things faster and better. When this did not meet his expectations, he would move into his command-and-destroy style by "going off the handle" with key executives, frequently personalizing his comments during bouts of rage. Metaphorically, the direct reports often referred to the after-effect as being like a war zone of total devastation and demoralization.

This combination is deftly successful for only short periods of time, typically only in a crisis. To accomplish the type of turnaround needed by this organization, his style was effective. However, now that he has been in place for more than three years, and the quality standards and performance have improved, the internal climate of the organization has turned strongly negative. Where the board has praised the CEO for his outstanding performance, it is now faced with the departure of key executives who have made it clear that the CEO is a problem. Some were forced out because they did not perform in a way that pleased him; others, simply left. The situation has been likened to a well trained horse, where you can only whip it so long before it simply stops performing regardless of how much you beat it.

At issue is that none of the six leadership styles is effective all of the time, and in today's complex environment, we can see that truly successful leaders use all six styles based on circumstances, situations, and the rapidly changing landscape. Jim Collins' research on Level 5 Leaders in Good to Great companies supports this contention as does his more recent work on How the Mighty Fall. Truly great leaders incorporate and seamlessly use all of these leadership styles throughout, meeting different situations, circumstances, and rapidly changing landscapes.

In terms of the coaching example, the CEO needed to develop beyond his limited leadership styles. Now that the crisis is over, he needs to engage through affiliation (teamwork) and by coaching others for succession planning. He needs to set a new vision for the organization so that everyone can get on the same page (democratic). Unfortunately, this is not happening. Board members are hearing complaints from key customers and water-cooler talk is infiltrating the organization negatively. Having fulfilled my obligation, I left the organization believing that it is a matter of time before he leaves for another crisis or is forced out for not having adequate leaderships styles to meet the everchanging environment.

Below is a synopsis of the six leadership styles that should be seamlessly used to ensure effective leadership in any environment.

Leadership Style Modus Operandi Style in a Phrase Underlying EI Competency When Appropriate Impact on Climate
Coercive/ Commanding Demands immediate compliance, obedience "Do what I tell you." Achievement, drive, initiative, emotional self-control. In a crisis to kick-start a turnaround, or with problem employees. Strongly negative
Authoritative/ Visionary Mobilizes people toward a vision "Come with me." Self-confidence, empathy, change catalyst, visionary leadership When change requires a new vision or when a clear direction is needed Most strongly positive
Affiliative Creates harmony and builds emotional bonds "People come first." Empathy, building bonds, conflict management To heal rifts in a team or to motivate during stressful times Highly positive
Democratic Forges consensus through participation "What do you think?" Teamwork, collaboration, communication To build buy-in or consensus or to get valuable input from employees Highly positive
Coaching Develops people and strengths for the future "Try this."> Developing others, empathy, emotional self-awareness To help an employee improve performance or develop long term strengths Highly positive
Pacesetting Sets high standards for performance "Do as I do, now!" Conscientiousness, achievement, drive, initiative. To get quick results from a highly motivated and competent team. Highly negative

Adapted from Daniel Goleman (2000) Leadership that Gets Results, Harvard Business Review, 82-83 and Cary Cherniss and Daniel Goleman (2001) The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace, 42.


[1] Adapted from Daniel Goleman (2000) Leadership that Gets Results, Harvard Business Review, 82-83 and Cary Cherniss and Daniel Goleman (2001) The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace, 42.

[2] See Barbara Kellerman, (2004) Bad Leadership, Cambridge: HBS Press.

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